We need, then, to redefine transparency for the digital age—or, better, to return to an older definition of what transparency means to our democracy. Being better than Bush when it comes to transparency isn’t good enough. Celebrations of Obama’s inauguration—and the Web site that came with it—as ushering in a New Age of Transparency are premature at best: as we’ve seen again and again, talking about transparency does not transparency make. And while there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful—including Obama’s signing, this afternoon, of two transparency-friendly executive orders—as Saul Hansell put it yesterday on The New York Times’s Bits blog, “Like so much else on this hopeful day, there is the lingering question about how many of the Web site’s lofty aspirations will survive the rough work of governing in a complex world and cynical capital.”
Indeed, WhiteHouse.gov’s many claims about the priority Obama will place on transparency are offset, somewhat, by a glaring absence on the site: its grand plan for renewed transparency doesn’t mention the press. At all. (We get only a tangential reference to the Office of the Press Secretary, listed with, among others, the Office of Presidential Personnel and the Office of Social Innovation—offices that, as yet, lack their own Web pages, or even explanations about what they are, on the Whitehouse.gov site. Several other offices, meanwhile, including the Council on Environmental Quality and the Civil Liberties Oversight Board, have customized pages.)
WhiteHouse.gov presents itself as a kind of social networking portal in which citizens can essentially “friend” the government—and it frames the ensuing dialogue as one that takes place directly between the people and the government. The press, it suggests by way of omission, need not be part of the exchange. One hopes—hey, one even dares to assume—that the conspicuous absence of the press from Obama’s transparency agenda is due to his conclusion that the democratic vitality of the Fourth Estate is so obvious as to render explanation or elucidation of that fact unnecessary.
And yet. It’s worth remembering that, though Team Obama’s facility with social networking and other forms of online organization are nothing short of legendary, their relationship with the press is much less exemplary in terms of that old, simple standby: access. During the campaign, reporters’ access to Obama was severely limited. On-the-record conversations with the candidate were even more so. Indeed, Obama’s overall treatment of the press—not just in his general rejection of the day-to-day news cycle, but also in his tendency to shun his national traveling press corps (remember when said press people were “hijacked” so Obama could meet in private with Hillary Clinton this summer?)—created the impression that its members were, to him, a buzzing nuisance. Instead of the voice of the people.
It remains to be seen how the man that many have dubbed the “YouTube President” will treat the various forms of information-dissemination that don’t fall under the convenient rubric of “direct democracy.” There’s a thin line, after all, between transparency and advocacy—and, for that matter, between information and propaganda. The goal can’t simply be transparency itself—how can we hold anyone accountable to something so self-referential—but rather transparency that is processed through a journosphere that is diligent, curious, and skeptical. Otherwise, “direct democracy” easily veers into “direct publicity.” And success must be measured not just in terms of words on a Web site, but also—and much, much more so—by the new administration’s treatment of the Fourth Estate. Will Obama regularly grant interviews to reporters? Will his Cabinet and other staff? Will he allow those conversations to take place on the record? Will he, in short, allow reporters to do their jobs and inform the American public?